Someone we meet persuades us to diverge from our planned route further into the mountains to a small hamlet called Chopta. It sounds intriguing and we may never come this way again, so why not? We catch an early bus – a broken down vehicle with windows missing and seats not properly bolted to the floor – to Karanprayag. We’re bounced and jostled for six hours down a narrow road winding through the mountains. Just when I think that the bus cannot hold another person, a man gets on with his goat. He squeezes on to the back seat, holding the poor animal’s head in his lap.
I am beginning to get really fed up with buses, when Gerard points out, “This is merely the beginning of a long series of bus rides.” “Okay,” I mutter in resignation, ”maybe I need to practice one day –or rather one bus ride – at a time.” I sympathize with the Indian women who do not make great travelers and spend a good part of the journey with their heads hanging out of the window. At least this is not my plight.
At Karanprayag, bidding farewell to our fellow English traveler, Gerard and I jump on another bus. The road follows a pretty river valley that is terraced and cultivated. Chamoli, a small town on the roadside, is a good breaking point in the journey to spend the night. It’s hard to find anyone who speaks any English but Gerard negotiates for the room while I find a restaurant with no menu catering to truck drivers. It’s been a long time since I’ve turned heads and it’s amusing when first the man making chapattis drops a ball of dough on the floor as he stares at me. Later back at our hotel, as I pass by a table of men, one catching sight of me, gives his friend a hard nudge! Obviously not many Western tourists pass through here.
The next morning we take a bus a short distance to the next town where we’re under the delusion we can make a connection for Chopta. The road winds along the hillside, giving us beautiful vistas looking down into the valley. In Gopeshwar the jeep drivers in unison tell us, “ There is no service to Chopta…but we will be happy to take you individually…” for an exorbitant price. It must be a plot. But after asking numerous drivers…the same story! Not knowing what to do, we go over to the pharmacy stand to get me throat lozenges for my laryngitis. At this time I have no voice..but nevertheless manage to strike up a conversation with a man who can speak English and agrees that there is no service to Chopta. Like any good entrepreneur he sees an opportunity and calls a friend on his mobile. When he suggests a small car would be cheaper than a jeep, the negotiations begin. By the time the car arrives, a price has been settled on. The man appears to have a break from his busy schedule hanging around the pharmacy, and jumps in with us. It turns out to be a good thing because he was friendly and helpful.
Going higher into the mountains, the road becomes narrower and turns into a dirt track, the scenery more alpine. In the higher elevation, a species of rhododendron grow into trees. It is our good fortune for them to be in full flower and whole areas of the countryside are awash in glorious clouds of red, purple and pink flowers. As we climb higher the snow capped peaks become closer. In Kausani we looked at them from a distance; here they are right next to us. It is a long ride but so interesting that the exorbitant price is quickly forgotten!
Chopta turns out to be made up of a few huts along the roadside. Each is a simple restaurant with a couple of room underneath. Before our friendly entrepreneur leaves he tells us a member of parliament who recently won a humanity award is about to drive by. Waiting with him on the roadside, a smart white Lexus draws up from the other side of the mountain and the politician looks out the window. Sitting beside him in saffron robes with flowing white hair is his sadhu, Guru Nath, who always travel with him. Our friend introduces us. We say we’re from Boston and the sadhu exclaims, “Ah, Boston Tea Party,” Everyone laughs and the entourage leaves. We learn later that they are driving around the mountains looking for a good spot for an ashram.
That evening, as we watch the sun go down, and clouds spread over the mountains, Gerard exclaims, “It’s snowing up there!” I don’t believe him. Next morning we make a big effort to get up and watch the sunrise and sure enough the mountains are covered with a fresh coat of snow! I ask Gerard, “Can this be real? Are we really here in the Himalayas? Our accommodation is as basic as it can be, but what can you expect so close to the top of the mountains. And the quilt covering the hard board bed is thick enough to keep us warm.
Above the hamlet is a walk up the mountainside to a small temple, called Taginath. After breakfast we set out. The higher we go the more taxing it his on Gerard’s lungs and makes him cough. . In the beginning we walk through orchards of rhododendrums that eventually give way to meadows and then moorland above the tree line. Just short of the temple, Gerard quotes one of his favorite Clint Eastwood lines: “A man must know his limitations.” I press on to the temple. The peak is another km at 4,000 meters high and the path only loose rocks. The air is thin and the sun blazing. I decide maybe I also have limitations and turn back.
On the way down the mountain we meet a group of Indian school kids from Dehra Dhun who had come up the other more accessible side of the mountain. The girls are whining and complaining to their teacher.. “Good afternoon Uncle and Aunty. Is it much further?” they ask us. “Yes, the climb has just begun..” Their teacher asks us how old we are. “You see,” he taunts his students, “they are old and they made it up there. You must not give up if you want to be like them when you are old!”
We were so excited to finally arrive in Chopta that we didn’t realize it would be even harder to get off the mountain as it was to get there. Once again the entrepreneurial spirit saves us. A young Danish couple has rented a jeep for a three day excursion, and the jeep is idle today. The driver offers to take us down the other side of the mountain for again an exorbitant price. We split it with five other travelers including a sweet Spanish man and his two teenage kids (Another story…) They stay with us on the next bus ride and then continue on to Rishikesh while we decide to take a break from bouncing and jostling in Devprayag, a sacred town at the convergence of two rivers. But finding a hotel is not easy. The only guest houses appear to be for pilgrims who come here to bathe. Less than basic, they are only dormitory style accommodation.
Eventually we find a government run guest house that must have been quite impressive in it prime, but now 25 years or so later, it is shabby and run down. But after the Spartan conditions of Chopta it seems quite luxurious. A friendly patron and his maintenance man – who at dinner time becomes the cook – live there. They speak no English, and we are their only guests. The next day another bone jarring 5 hour bus ride takes us to Rishikesh.